It's not the president's decisiveness, it's his decisions

September 06, 2004|By Ellen Goodman

NEW YORK - If nothing else, the Republican National Convention is bound to revive all those jokes about men and driving.

"Why does it take a million sperm to fertilize one egg? They won't ask for directions." "Why were the Jews lost in the desert for 40 years? Moses wouldn't stop to ask for directions." You know the drill.

These were the jokes about boys who grew up as if they had Map Quest in their DNA hard drive. By the time men got behind the wheel - of the car or the country - they had to know where they were going. Or at least act as if they did.

Now the line is back, only without the punch.

This year's RNC was the RMC, the Real Men Convention. The polls show that half of all Americans think the country is on the wrong track. But the delegates and speakers here all praised George W. Bush for being the President Who Wouldn't Ask for Directions.

California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger cited his two role models as John Wayne and Richard Nixon before he said what he admired most about Mr. Bush: "perseverance."

Leadership, said Mr. Schwarzenegger, is "about making decisions you think are right and then standing behind those decisions." And in case anyone didn't get it, he then teased those who disagreed with the president's rosy jobs scenario by reprising his line: "Don't be economic girlie men."

Sen. Zell Miller, the angry old Democrat of the Republican Party, sounded like he was suffering from the side effects of Cialis when he called Mr. Kerry a "bowl of mush" and praised the president's, uh, "backbone."

And Dick Cheney twisted Mr. Kerry's promise to run "a more effective, more thoughtful, more strategic, more pro-active, more sensitive war on terror" into a slam against the Democrat as, gulp, a Sensitive Guy.

"He talks about leading a more sensitive war on terror," sneered the vice president, "as though al-Qaida will be impressed with our softer side." The words resolute, strong and steadfast littered Madison Square Garden. The phrase repeated by delegate after delegate was: "He does what he says he's going to do."

It didn't seem to matter what he did as much as the fact that he said he'd do it. It didn't seem to matter as much where he was leading as that he was leading. The president put it best Thursday night when he said, "Even when we don't agree, at least you know what I believe and where I stand."

The RMC didn't just want to portray the combat veteran Kerry as the wimp and the National Guardsman Bush as the warrior. By the time the balloons dropped, it was clear that Republicans think that this may become a contest between a man who swaggers and a man who sways. They believe we'll pick the swagger. In times of anxiety, many do gravitate to a very traditional image of male strength. Whatever the gender jokes, it isn't just men. There are also women in the passenger seat who are only comfortable with a man who behaves as if he knows where he's going.

Leadership in itself is neither good nor bad. The paradox of leadership is that the skills can be utterly disconnected from the goals. You can be led by Hannibal - there was a guy with an elephant problem - straight into the mountains.

But Mr. Bush's leadership is paradoxical for another reason. He's seen as unwavering because he simply disavows any turns in the road. In a powerful acceptance speech rife with distortions, the same resolute, persevering, backboned president who went into Iraq claiming weapons of mass destruction now defends the war as one of liberation. In Mr. Bush's head, al-Qaida and Saddam Hussein are still connected. And anyone who worries that Iraq is breeding more terrorists than it had before is suffering from what Mr. Miller called "analysis paralysis."

My father used to describe a friend as "often wrong, but never in doubt." On the last day of the convention, Mr. Cheney described his friend to a breakfast of Ohio delegates as "decisive."

"He doesn't waffle, he doesn't agonize," said the vice president. "That's exactly what we need in a president. We don't need indecision or confusion."

Well, I am sure that Mr. Cheney isn't asking me for directions. But guess what? It's not Mr. Bush's decisiveness that's the problem. It's his decisions.

Ellen Goodman is a columnist for The Boston Globe. Her column appears Mondays and Thursdays in The Sun.

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